Burgers and Beer: A Tale of Two Cities

In which the food trends of Los Angeles and London converge unexpectedly.

London, I had always lamented, is devoid of good burgers. But of course, that’s not true anymore. Now there are so many good burgers that only the most committed devotees of meat and bun can keep up with all of them. We are experiencing an all-out burger renaissance, and it is a wonderful time to be a burgerphile in London.

The same goes for beer: four years ago, you could pretty much count on one hand the number of serious, dedicated beer bars in London. Now there is a bounty of them, not to mention several new microbreweries and an increasing number of restaurants and retailers putting more effort into curating good beer lists. BrewDog is everywhere. Camden is everywhere. The Kernel is everywhere. And it’s awesome!

When I lived in Los Angeles, good beer and burgers were just a part of the culinary landscape; they weren’t trendy like they are right now in London, they were just there. Old institutions like Apple Pan, In-N-Out, and Pie ‘n Burger seem to have been built as the city itself was built, as integral to the fabric of LA history and culture as the movie industry, even though none of them are actually that old.

The same goes for beer. I could get Rogue, Stone, Anchor, and/or Sierra Nevada pretty much anywhere. Good beer was just a fact of life. But in the four years I lived there, not much changed. We had our burger establishment and our handful of well-known microbreweries, and we were happy. Or rather, we were complacent.

It’s only recently that a new enthusiasm for burgers and beer has pushed things forward in LA – and I never, ever thought I’d say anything like this – but in some ways it seems like they’re playing catch-up to London. London’s burger and beer boom happened so fast with such momentum that it transformed almost overnight into one of the world’s best cities for both. Los Angeles has always had established burger and craft beer cultures, but if not for recent trends, it just might be lagging behind London in terms of quality, variety, and creativity.¹

But here is where things get complicated, and a little scary.

London’s burger and beer revolution went something like this:

LA’s development went something like this:

  • everybody loves good burgers and beer
  • people begin to demand more, different burgers and beer
  • growth of more experimental, sophisticated burgers and beer
  • renewed interest in good burgers and beer; new and innovative burgers and beer go mainstream

You could say that both cities underwent the same basic change, but London did it on fast forward; LA has had the groundwork laid for great beer and burger scenes for a few decades and only recently built upon it, while London laid the groundwork and built it up within just a few years.

Right now, both cities seem to have reached the same phase simultaneously albeit in different ways and on different schedules. Good B&B are going mainstream, and those on the vanguard are starting to produce and consume a new wave of more experimental, more unusual, and sometimes more expensive B&B offerings: Stout, Umami, and Mohawk Bend in LA; Lucky Chip, Bar Boulud, and Craft Beer Co. in London.

Now here’s the scary part: as burgers become more complicated and sophisticated, the gap between good burgers and “gourmet” burgers narrows – I’ve already heard the term used to describe some of London’s more recent burger hotshots. And therein lies the danger: the “gourmet” quagmire that burgers were stuck in for the past decade or two in Britain threatens to engulf the recent trend for good, unfussy burgers that London so sorely lacked for many years. London has finally learned that the essence of a good burger is the understanding that they aren’t gourmet – they’re fun and informal and messy. As we make our burgers more creative and complicated,² and as we become more boastful of our ingredients’ provenance, are we setting ourselves up for a downward spiral into another era dominated by the likes of GBK and Haché?

Actually, I doubt it. A while back at the Euston Tap, I expressed worry to some of my beer geek buddies that the craft beer boom is just a fad, and that in another four years everyone will have moved on to some other drink – Aperol spritzes, or some such – and all the great breweries and bars that have sprung up recently will fold. But one of my friends retorted – correctly, I hope – that once you taste good beer and you realize what beer can be, you don’t go back to drinking shit. The sharply accelerating enthusiasm for craft beer may plateau a bit, but it won’t drop off. I think the same will be true of good, honest, no-pretense burgers like the ones that made MeatLiquor, Motherflipper, and Lucky Chip so popular in the first place. There will be burger diversification, for sure, and maybe a slight spike in popularity for gourmet burgers, but it will be the sloppy, American-style burger joint burgers that leave your hands smelling like onions and mustard that people will really come to cherish. Hopefully, anyway.

It’s interesting to watch what’s happening in LA, as well. While I was there I went to Stout, a new but rapidly expanding local chain specializing in beer and burgers. You could even call them gourmet, but they stay true to the napkin-necessitating messiness and utter lack of formality that are at the heart of any good burger. I had their eponymous burger, a rare-cooked, coarsely-minced beast with an incredible fragrance and depth of flavor from both the meat itself and its toppings – Gruyere and blue cheeses, caramelized onions, and horseradish among them. Punchy stuff indeed, but it was all carefully orchestrated to balance and underscore the meat rather than overpower it. The texture was loose and juicy, but not to the point that it fell apart or made the bun soggy. It was generally soft and lush, but it had a bit of chew and a nice sticky quality from the sweet onions and oily cheese. If cooking burgers is a kind of alchemy, this was solid gold.

But it was totally unlike the LA burgers I’d come to know and love. Where was the crunch of iceberg lettuce? The tang of ketchup and mustard? The decadent 20th century squishiness of molten plastic cheese? Nowhere to be found. And yet the Stout burger was no poorer for it. Here was a burger that flew in the face of any standards I might have had in terms of burger construction, and it was truly lovely.

So there is a way for burgers to be both creative and complex but still distinctly lowbrow – the trick, I think, is to not try to clean up burgers too much. Stout does so admirably. Will London’s burgerati follow suit? I believe they already are. I don’t think any of us want to go back to the dark days of the gourmet burger.³

1) On the day that I’m finishing up this post, In-N-Out has arrived in Hendon (of all places) for a a one day pop-up. For the first time ever in the history of British burgerdom, this is not a must-visit event for me; In-N-Out is wonderful, and absolutely worth the trip if you’ve never had it before, but London now has better and more exciting burgers of its own. This is a historic moment. I had dinner at MeatMarket to celebrate.

2) I’m guilty of this myself; two of my burgers at BrewDog Camden get pretty fancy with the flavors. But they’re still messy and cheap, so I think I’m in the clear.

3) I actually used to rate GBK as one of London’s best burgers – just three years ago, in fact. Goes to show just how far we’ve come.

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7 thoughts on “Burgers and Beer: A Tale of Two Cities

  1. meemalee says:

    I used to like GBK mainly because the Kiwi Burger was so ridiculous and they seemed to do 2 for 1 permanently.

    PS gotta love a post with footnotes.

    PPS Have to go back to Meatmarket for that Black Palace. And some “poppaz”, however damned expensive they may be.

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